Entrepreneurship, innovation flourish at UI, Parkland, Champaign businesses

Champaign County’s entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well.

Local inventors and innovators were honored at the 2012 Innovation Celebration held Monday evening at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. There were 10 awards given to recipients ranging from local business owners to up-and-coming entrepreneurs who contributed to and led in the economic development of Champaign County. The seventh annual event was sponsored by the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, the University, Parkland College and other University offices and local businesses.

Guest speaker Lori Gold Patterson, president of the Urbana-based information technology and creative services company Pixo, began the night’s events by commenting on the state of entrepreneurship.

“Entrepreneurship has been one of the precious few bright spots in our gloomy economy,” she said. “Let us recognize the incredible innovative energies in our community and continue to support these efforts regardless of how small or big, how media-based or gearhead-ish, how local or international.”

The social entrepreneurship award was given to IntelliWheels, Inc. One project designed by the group, IntelliWheels Automatic Gear-Shift, assists wheelchair users when they are traversing tough terrain or going up an incline.

“We are new at this entrepreneurship game and it’s really nice to be honored in this type of way,” said co-founder Scott Daigle.

Daigle accepted the award while his partner, Marissa Siebel, briefly spoke to the audience from Tuscaloosa, Ala., via Daigle’s iPad.

“We have one of the most accessible universities in the country and we’re really proud to be a part of that,” he said. “This has been a really fun ride.”

Later in the ceremony, businessman Shahid Khan, owner of automobile parts manufacturer Flex-N-Gate, won the economic development impact award for his contributions to the Champaign and Urbana communities.

Khan was born in Pakistan but moved to Champaign to study mechanical engineering at the University, where he graduated in 1971. After purchasing Flex-N-Gate in 1980, he built the company and continues to operate it with 12,450 employees and 50 manufacturing plants in the United States, for a revenue of $3 billion in 2011.

Khan is responsible for recent campus construction such as the $10 million Khan Annex to Huff Hall and the Khan outdoor tennis complex. He recently made national news for purchasing the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars team, but Flex-N-Gate vice president of engineering Dave Kirkolis, who spoke on behalf of the absent Khan, insists “Champaign is his home.”

University Chancellor Phyllis Wise spoke about the event’s two new awards for this year’s celebration: the technology transfer award for those who “successfully commercialize an innovation” and the innovation discovery award for “a groundbreaking discovery with potential for significant societal impact.”

These were awarded to David Kranz, professor of biochemistry, and Yi Lu, professor of chemistry.